Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is supposed to be a great book. It’s sort of about how things that seem to be giants aren’t really as formidable as you might thing. It’s sort of about how the underdog can win. But it’s not very practical, it’s rife with bad logic, and in the end I walked away with a smattering of information about various topics but not enough of a takeaway to even write down any notes. The tabs I put in the book were just to mark places where the logic failed egregiously. I kept thinking it would get better, and the end is better than the beginning, but not by much.
I feel bad giving a completely bad review, so I will say that I found the chapters on the Civil Rights movement, the Irish Troubles, and curing childhood leukemia very interesting from a topical perspective.
Here’s where the breakdown happened: in trying to fit scenarios into the David-vs-Goliath framework, Gladwell made some terrible logic leaps. For example, he cites information and anecdote indicating that class size in public elementary schools affects outcome in a bell-shaped curve–that is, that when a class is too large or too small the results suffer. However, he doesn’t look at WHY that happens, or what might be causing it. Rather, he moves on to say that Hotchkiss (a very elite, very expensive private boarding school) has small class sizes, therefore it “is not the school it wants to be.”
Where to start? Some of the best, BEST educational experiences I’ve had in my life were in small classes. Others were in very large classes. What’s the common denominator? Great teachers. Why were seminars consisting of me, two other students, and a professor so amazing? Because the professor was brilliant and engaging. Why were my very large combined English/History classes in 11th grade fantastic? Because Ms. Whiteman and Mrs. Turrentine were incredible teachers. Your average person with a teaching certificate truly probably can’t teach well in a large class or a small class, because that’s not how they are trained. But a wonderful teacher can teach wonderfully no matter the size of the class. Is Hotchkiss a bad school because of small class sizes? I really doubt it.
In another educational example, Gladwell profiles a girl who really liked science, then went to Yale and freaked out because she was getting a B in science classes (they had been so easy in high school!) and so she stopped being a science major. Her quote, which Gladwell deems “tragic” is, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Well. Gladwell shows statistics about how the SAT scores of state school science majors compare to the SAT scores of Harvard science majors. It turns out that the bottom third of the Harvard pool outscored the top third of the state pool. And yet more of the top third of the state pool graduated with STEM degrees than did the bottom third of the Harvard pool. That’s interesting, but does it follow that the Harvard kids should’ve gone to state schools? The fact is, college-level math and science are hard. My SAT math score was higher than the top third state score listed in the book, and I liked math and science in high school. I found college-level calculus much harder than AP Calculus BC was in high school, I got a C+ on the mid-term, freaked out, and dropped the class. Am I a huge loss to the STEM fields? No. I didn’t drop out of college, I dropped out of a class. The fact is, I’m much stronger in humanities than in STEM fields. I’d wager most of the Harvard kids found out something similar. And the girl from Gladwell’s book might have found the same. Just because you like something in high school and scored well on the SAT doesn’t mean you’re cut out for it as a career. You might be better at something else.
I won’t go into Gladwell’s arguments about dyslexia, which were also a mixed bag.
Suffice it to say, I found the book’s reasoning flawed on several points, contradictory in many places (a few times even on the same page!), and overall not compelling or particularly helpful. The world is full of books that are worth your time. This one is not a total loss, but in my view you could do better.
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